Green Fades to Black

NEW YORK Two years ago, spurred on by a groundswell of interest in all things eco-friendly, green-related content was sprouting everywhere. For magazines, that meant a flurry of green-themed issues. But the economic downturn, coupled with cooling consumer interest, have some publishers pulling the plug on those products.

Among titles holding off on green issues in ’09 are Conde Nast’s Domino, Time Inc.’s Sunset, Mariah Media’s Outside and independent title Discover. Active Interest Media’s Backpacker, already seeing the concept as tired, did not produce a second global-warming issue this year. “My sense is the idea of doing a green issue has been done so much it feels anachronistic,” said Backpacker editor Jonathan Dorn.

It didn’t help that newsstand sales weren’t so hot for some green issues. Backpacker’s global-warming special sold 44,038 on stands versus its average of 50,227. Discover’s green issue this past May sold 93,000 newsstand copies, versus its 115,767 average. Domino’s 2008 and 2007 green issues sold below average, even though vp, publisher Beth Brenner pointed out that March is not a strong month for single-copy sales.

Not all green issues bombed. Outside sold above average on stands, while this year’s special from Conde Nast’s Vanity Fair, featuring cover subject Madonna, sold 370,000 copies at stands, only slightly below average.

Editors insist readers are still interested in green themes, although some said they are evolving coverage in response to green’s maturation. Hachette Filipacchi Media’s Elle — which made a statement by publishing its green issue on recycled paper this year — plans a water-themed issue in ’09, reminiscent of the blue issue of Rodale’s Women’s Health in 2007.

VF editor Graydon Carter said, via e-mail, that while he may not devote his entire May issue to the environmental theme next year, he plans more eco-oriented coverage overall — “especially now that we have an incoming administration that is sensitive to the environment, knows what it means to be green and takes the science, and the science of global warming, seriously.”

National Geographic folded its quarterly Green Guide, a consumer-service publication it bought in 2007. But Claudia Malley, vp and U.S. publisher of Nat Geo, said the declining ad market, rather than waning consumer interest, was to blame, noting that newsstand sales for the first two issues were in the 70,000-80,000 range. Malley said a special newsstand issue is planned for next September.

Ending their green issues could serve a PR purpose for magazines, given that the very practice of publishing on paper is seen as at odds with protecting the environment. Still, some maintain that while tips for sustainable living are well-worn, readers continue to want targeted green content.

Discover CEO Henry Donahue said the magazine’s October issue, which focused on alternative energy, sold above average, which, he believes, reflects a hunger for more targeted information. “Our readers can get that broader content in other places,” he said.
“There’s still a healthy amount of advertising demand for that, particularly on the corporate branding side, but [we’re] struggling to find what works editorially for these issues.”

Some publishers report that marketers have not abandoned green messaging, to the extent they’re still advertising at all.

The Domino Bazaar, an annual shopping event put on by the magazine, boasted eco-friendly messages this year. And in 2009, the event, which will be rebranded Domino District, will carry an even more prominent environmental message, featuring a green show house. Presenting sponsor Benjamin Moore will use the platform to promote its eco-friendly paints.

However, Brenner said advertisers don’t feel they need a green-themed issue to make an Earth-friendly case, explaining, “They’ve made it a part of their everyday messaging.”